What is digital inequality?
Digital inequality or digital divide is the disparity between people who have access to digital technologies and those who don’t. People from certain socioeconomic backgrounds have always been more affected. This gap has most definitely been widened in the last couple of years, when “carrying on as normal” depended on reliable digital devices and a stable internet connection.
To put this in the context of education, the Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: UK higher education findings published in September 2021 has revealed 63% of the 38,916 students who responded have had issues with WiFi. The survey explicitly states that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have been more affected. If students don’t have stable access to the internet, then it is reasonable to assume they might have had trouble accessing learning activities and materials at some points.
The pandemic has been a double edged sword. On the one hand, it has presented us with many wonderful opportunities to revisit how digital technologies can support the design and delivery of good educational experiences. For example, many successful implementations of blended learning and hybrid learning have made education more flexible and accessible for students with different needs. However, on the other hand, all of these amazing achievements have been, to a large extent, at the expense of our students who are affected by digital inequality.
Some universities have put interventions in place to bridge the gap, for instance, laptop loans, hardship funds, “free” wifi dongles and so on. However, as a pessimist, I cannot see any of these being a long term solution because sooner or later, these will stop, if they haven’t already. More crucially, these provisions feel like putting a plaster on an old infected wound, when we really should tend to it so it can heal properly.
As educators, we ought to look at the longer term, more sustainable ways to try and tackle this problem from within our own practice. We should look at whether our teaching is equitable not only from an accessibility point of view, but also from the perspective of access. Only then, the world might be a little bit fairer and our students could be a little bit happier.
To end this post, I want to mention something a friend said in an interview for a related study I conducted recently. He said some of his students who come from a cultural minority background, who are also the poorest, had to travel over 40 miles a day just to get stable access to the internet. They became so stressed and focused on whether they could login to join a webinar on time, the rest of the educational experience didn’t matter to them anymore. Being at university should be some of the most exciting and fun experiences in life, but it isn’t the case for more people than we care to admit.
We still have a long way to go…
Jisc. (2021, September 7). Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: UK higher education findings. Jisc. https://www.jisc.ac.uk/reports/student-digital-experience-insights-survey-2020-21-uk-higher-education-findings
McKie, A. (2020, September 2020). Lack of study space and poor connections hinder online learning. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/lack-study-space-and-poor-connections-hinder-online-learning
Stanford, D. (2020, March 16). Videoconferencing Alternatives: How Low-Bandwidth Teaching Will Save Us All. IDD blog. https://www.iddblog.org/videoconferencing-alternatives-how-low-bandwidth-teaching-will-save-us-all/University of Cambridge. (n.d.). “Pay the wi-fi or feed the children”: Coronavirus has intensified the UK’s digital divide. University of Cambridge. https://www.cam.ac.uk/stories/digitaldivide
Puiyin Wong is a PhD researcher in e-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning at Lancaster University. Puiyin is also a Learning Technologist at the Royal College of Art.
Puiyin’s research interests include digital access and inclusion/exclusion due to political, racial and social disparities; how open educational resources (OER) might bridge the gap for those less privileged. In addition, Puiyin is very passionate about how, by developing learners’ digital capabilities, their practices can benefit. For example, how learners can competently and confidently develop their individual online identities, comfortably moving between different online spaces, using a range of digital tools and resources that can help them achieve their educational goals.
The Wakelet https://wke.lt/w/s/zO_aU3